What a catch

10.5 million quahogs harvested off Warwick in 2022, but can it be sustained?

Posted 5/4/23

If you enjoy eating clams on the half shell, clam cakes and clam chowder there’s a better than a 50 percent chance that the quahogs were harvested from a 1,900-acre stretch of the Providence …

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What a catch

10.5 million quahogs harvested off Warwick in 2022, but can it be sustained?


If you enjoy eating clams on the half shell, clam cakes and clam chowder there’s a better than a 50 percent chance that the quahogs were harvested from a 1,900-acre stretch of the Providence River between Conimicut and Gaspee Points.

Of the total of 18 million quahogs pulled from Narragansett and Greenwich Bays and the Providence River last summer, 10.5 million were harvested from the river that was opened to shellfishing for the fist time in 70 years in 2021. The abundance of clams, especially little necks that command high prices, amazed not only quahoggers but regulators who had expected a preponderance of older and bigger “chowders” quahogs. That year during the limited period the river was open, more than 4.7 million “pieces,”  the term used for quahogs), were harvested. Of the totals harvested, 85 percent were little necks according to the shellfish advisory report prepared by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

When the area closed in 2021 and the numbers totaled, it was questioned whether the mother lode of bivalves had been cleaned out. In the 3-hour stretch per day for digging, shellfishermen were filling their limit of six bushels and raking in bonanzas of more than 2,000 pieces. Some were making $1,000 for three hours of back breaking work. Could the area be as productive in 2022?

While the numbers say “yes,” it’s not as simple as that. The major difference between the two harvesting seasons was weather. There were a lot of rainy days during the summer of 2021 that forced closure of the river and other sections of the bay.  Of the 30 days allocated for opening half were closed because of rain. (If a half inch of rain or more is recorded at Green Airport the area is closed for seven days.)   Last summer was unusually dry and deemed a drought. Of the 40 days allocated for last year, the river was open 28 days.

“We were very pleased with the resources,” says Michael McGivney president of the RI Shellfisherman’s Association. He notes in particular that even though the average number of quahoggers digging the river daily went from 151 to 174, the average catch went from 2,057 to 2,147 pieces which would show the area isn’t being cleaned out.

21 day opening this year

This year the river will be open for 21 days.  During the summer season that run s from May 22 to September 1 the area will be open Monday and Wednesdays. From Sept. 5 to Oct. 31 it will be open every Tuesday. Three of the open days are reserved for openings in December, said DEM Fisheries Specialist and principal marine biologist, Patrick Barrett.

McGivney said the association made concessions to ensure the diggers get the time to harvest and that the resource is best managed to ensure its sustainability. He points out when the river is open three to four times as many quahoggers are out on the bay.

“You make your money in the summer and try to get by as best you can in the winter,” he said.

The association is following the argument the bay is too clean causing harvest reductions south of the river in Narragansett Bay due to reductions in nitrogen that fed phytoplankton that quahogs filter from the water. He said the Narragansett Bay Commission and other wastewater treatment plants have reduced the release of nitrogen by 65 percent. He said there have been suggestions nitrogen could be introduced during the winter without causing algae blooms that can lead to hypoxia and anoxia  conditions resulting in fish kills from the depletion of oxygen.  

That still leaves the unanswered question, is there a danger of cleaning out what has been referred to as the golden goose of quahogs – the mother nest for clams throughout the bay? There’s no doubt given the harvest reports for two years that the Providence River is a major nursery and habitat for quahogs, but it is not the only one as quahoggers and regulators know.

Nonetheless, such a rich resource is recognized by Barrett, who conducts the quahog dredge survey.

“It is definitely a valuable resource and we need to take care of it,” he said of the Providence River. He said the challenge is to develop a harvesting schedule that is most sustainable for the area. As for extending shellfishing farther up river, he said that dredge surveys found an “abundance of biomass” (shellfish) between Gaspee Point and Fields Point where Save the Bay is located.

Opening that area to shellfishing is not being contemplated by DEM’s Water Resources, says David Borkman, because water quality does not meet criteria for safe shellfish harvest and north of Gaspee are mandatory closed safety zones (shellfish harvest prohibited) near waste water treatment facility outfalls.  Borkman wrote in an email, “Fecal coliform levels increase dramatically as one moves north of Gaspee Point; a quick review of 2022 data shows a doubling of fecal coliform levels in the region from north of Gaspee Point to Fields Point as compared to the values in the waters south of Gaspee Point to Conimicut Point. “

 Quahog restoration

Rep. Joseph Solomon and Sen. Mark McKenney have been actively working to assess the issue of quahog restoration that was brought to their attention by constituent Mark Johnson, who is a Warwick quahogger. Solomon introduced legislation in 2021 on the issue that was met with mixed reaction.

In an email he said he has spoken with Johnson and McKenney and have determined that there is serious concern regarding shellfish harvests being at historic lows in the bay.  We have also had conversations with others but there hasn't been a general consensus as to what is causing it.”

On April 18th, Solomon and McKenney called an informal meeting of experts/stakeholders at the State House and invited the quahoggers, key employees of DEM, Save the Bay, Narragansett Bay Commission, a researcher from the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, and House Environment Chairman David Bennett.

“This was one of the first times, if not the first time, that everyone had recently been in the same room together to discuss the issue.  Previously there had been phone calls here and there, meetings between a couple of groups, etc.  We felt that everyone had to be in the room together for an informal, free speaking conversation to determine why stocks are down and how to restore them,” Solomon said.

Solomon reported there were different theories as to the causation, including the increase in water temperature of the bay.

“However, nitrogen levels in the water was universally identified as something that may be a cause.  It was also determined that there has been a bunch of research on different aspects of the bay and it should all be looked at as a whole.”

Solomon said discussions are being held whether to form a study commission or request DEM and others to gather all of the research and data and have another informal meeting.

“If there is an issue with the bay, we need to get ahead of it so that we do not run into an issue similar to Alaska where the realization of crab stock declines wasn't realized until it was too late.  Sometimes we take for granted the importance and beauty of our bay.  We will do all that we can to make sure we can protect it for many generations to come,” Solomon wrote.

On Tuesday Johnson, the Warwick quahogger, cited the work of URI researcher Candace Qviatt in support of his contention that the drive to reduce nitrogen in the bay has impacted the fishery. He shared a story in the September 19 edition of ecoRI News quoting Qviatt that, “In recent years, around 20 million quahogs with a value of $5 million have been harvested annually from the bay and, since the nutrient reduction, the quahog production has declined by 35 to 40%.” She attributed the decline in part to a reduction of nutrients.

quahog, clams, shellfish